How Much Do You Have to Hate Someone Not to Proselytize?

Francis Schaeffer on the Origins of Relativism in the Church

One of My Favorite Songs

An Inspiring Song


Thursday, February 24, 2011

Are Catholics Christians?

I just read/skimmed a post and comments wherein a Baptist preacher was being royally torched for, among other things, having taught that Catholics aren't Christians, and characterizing Catholics as "cult members."

It kind of interested me that no one really contested the torching, and it was a Baptist blog. Time was that most Baptists would tell you that Catholics weren't Christians, but things have changed. I have had Sunday School class members tell me, just directly out and out tell me in class, that Catholics were Christians.

That's quite a change. You have to wonder what happened. Let me see if I can suggest a possibility or two.

One thing is that I am certain, dead certain, that hardly any Baptists, and precious few Catholics, actually know what official Roman Catholic doctrine is. That may sound like an absurd thing to say, especially about the Catholics, but I am totally convinced it is true. Over the years, I have repeatedly had the experience of asking people--sometimes whole classrooms of people--to tell me exactly what the differences between Baptists and Methodists are, or between Baptists and Catholics. Only once or twice has someone even come close on either count. I long ago grew convinced that your average modern Southern Baptist knows virtually nothing of doctrine other than "Jesus saves" and that it is "by grace through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God," and "faith without works is dead." Not that they haven't heard more doctrine than that, but there is a heap of difference between having heard something, even repeatedly, and knowing it.

Now, you might think that that is just those dumb ol' Southern Baptists and that the Catholics are more knowledgeable, but I wouldn't bet on it, not if I were you. I have had the experience of talking to a lady--a lady who attended, I think, Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church--whilst her car was being washed during one of our outreach events. My job was to talk to people who stopped by to get their cars washed, and as I talked to this lady, I kept saying things that I knew from my reading went directly counter to official Roman doctrine. To my complete and utter shock, she agreed with every single thing I said! "That's what we believe, too," she kept saying.

To appreciate how significant that was to me, you have to understand that it's not like I haven't read anything about the Reformation! I've read Luther's The Bondage of the Will and part of his Commentary on Galatians, both of which spoke directly against Catholic doctrine. I've read some of Calvin. I've read a pretty fair amount of what James White has to say about Catholicism. I've read books by other authors on the subject, the names of which I cannot recall right now. I've read--or at least I am pretty sure I recall reading--The Council of Trent, wherein the Roman Church specifically anathematized a number of protestant doctrines. I know that Trent has never been recanted. I know the Roman Catholic doctrine on Scripture and Tradition, on the veneration of Saints, on justification, on the interpretive authority of the Magisterium, on the Mass, on the Eucharist, and so forth. I know, and I'm telling you, that the Reformation was not over simple miscommunication!

The heart of the gospel itself was at stake--but the lady I was talking to sure as thunder didn't know it. I had to conclude that either she was lying to me, or she--and maybe the bulk of the people in her church, too--simply didn't know what the official doctrine of their denomination was.

What on earth could have caused that?

A few years later, I found out about something--something in addition to the general doctrinal ignorance prevailing in these times--that might be part of the explanation. It seems that quite a number of years ago the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (the BGEAs) started working with Catholic churches in their crusades. This move got the BGEAs royally torched by more Baptists than you might think; it was seen as serious doctrinal compromise. But this is the thing: in order for a Catholic church to participate in a BGEAs crusade, it had to agree to use BGEAs material, which is pretty standard Southern Baptist stuff, and which takes a good month or more to get through. So there were lots of people going to these crusades, and yes, some of them went to Catholic churches afterward, but they were getting, for several weeks, Protestant doctrine.

(At this point, somebody who believes in the "trail of blood" stuff will up and say, "But MOTW, Baptists aren't protestants!" Look, save it for now, ok? I'll get to the Trail of Blood another day.)

At any rate, to my mind, when you've had Catholic churches all across the country teaching Southern Baptist doctrine as part of the crusade "deal" for decades, you shouldn't be shocked that a lot of American Catholics no longer know what official Catholic doctrine is.

I've often pointed out to people that Martin Luther did not leave the Roman Catholic church. They kicked him out. Was he a non-Christian right up 'til the time he got kicked out, and then a Christian thereafter? It seems absurd, but that is kind of where you have to go if you automatically assume that Catholics aren't Christians.

The upshot is this: if you compare official Roman Catholic doctrine with the text of the Bible, it is clear, very clear, that Roman doctrine conflicts with what the Bible says at a number of key points, including the gospel itself. I do not believe that the official doctrine of Rome is the saving doctrine of the Bible--BUT I am quite convinced that despite attendance at Mass, despite liturgy, and so forth, rather a lot of American Catholics simply do not know what their church's doctrine actually is. Shoot, their local priest may not believe Rome's official doctrine!

You just have to talk to people on a case-by-case basis. Some have their faith in Christ and Christ alone, and some have their faith in the Catholic church and a mixture of faith and their own works. You don't know 'til you talk to 'em.


  1. Not to ask what might be a stupid question, but didn’t the Catholic Church put together the Bible and decided what was canon and what wasn’t?

  2. It's not a stupid question, Dave, not at all, but the full answer requires rather a lot of space. This question is near the heart of a protestant doctrine referred to as "sola scriptura," and as you might imagine, whole books have been written on the subject.

    I could just answer "no," and be perfectly accurate, but in a short space, here's a little more:

    You've got to be fairly precise about what you mean by "Catholic Church." "Catholic" just means "universal." In the first few years of church history, folks would talk about the "catholic church" and what they meant was the church as a whole, not just the local congregation. Nowadays, when we talk about the "Catholic church," what we mean is specifically the Roman Catholic church, aka, Rome, the Roman Church, The See of Rome.

    The "catholic" (small "c") church did have some councils dealing with Scripture, and the Roman Catholic (big "C") church does claim that it decided what was and wasn't Scripture at those councils, but saying that this is hotly disputed is putting it mildly. For one thing, the Roman Catholic church of today simply would not have been recognized at those councils. It teaches doctrines that were completely unknown to those folks. This is not mere guesswork on my part. There is a huge amount of documentation as to what people in the first several centuries of the church believed, much of it gathered together in a well-known collection referred to as "The Ante-Nicene Fathers," that is, the writings of the church fathers prior to the Council of Nicea.

    Secondly, those councils, as is clear from surviving documentation, did not so much decide on a canon as recognize and ratify that which was already widely in use. You have to remember, Dave, that at this point hardly anyone disputes that any book of the New Testament was written any later than about 95 AD, with most of them having been written by 70 AD (I'm sure you may have heard otherwise, but I kid thee not, this is the state of modern scholarship), which means that the "catholic" church had already been dealing with all those books for well over two hundred years before the first council. Everybody, or almost everybody, used the books we now recognize as the New Testament, with only a little dispute as to whether or not the Epistle of James or the Shepherd of Hermas should be included or not.

    In short, these councils were less about deciding what the canon was than they were about...well, the closest thing I can think of that might mean something to you is this: you're aware, no doubt, that Jefferson had his own highly edited version of the Gospels, having basically edited out the miraculous. If there were a "council" twenty years after his death, and one of the pronouncements of that council was that the Gospel According to Jefferson was not recommended for use in the churches, would you say that council had decided what was canon? Probably not, I think.

    That is the sort of thing that was going on in the councils to which you refer. When Rome claims to have infallibly decided on the Canon in those councils, it is stretching things way beyond the actual facts.

    Helpful? I hope so. To go much further you would really have to start digging into the books.

  3. Personally, I do not susbribe to the doctrine (or dogma, or whatever the right term would be) of sola scriptura.

    I believe that the Bible is very important to us to help guide us in our faith. But I also believe that it is not the only thing that guides us.

    I agree with your statement about when the Bible was written. Well, that is, when the books of the Bible were written and that the books of the Bible were written well before the rise of the Roman Catholic Church.

    I think, however, that it was the Roman Catholic that took these books that, like you said, were already in existence, and put them together in a certain order (for lack of a better way to put that) and determined what was (again lack of a better way to phrase this) divinely inspired and which books were not.

    Does that sound right or am I completely off base?

  4. Also on this topic. I do believe that Catholics are Christians. I also believe that Southern Baptists and Methodists and Presbyterians and Pentecostals are Christians. I don't think any denomination has the only market on salvation.

    I will say that personally, the idea of Christianity being so split apart is kind of (for lack of a better term) depressing. Considering that one of the last things Jesus prayed about (according to the Bible that is) had to do with the unity of the Church. We as a people have completely missed the mark on that one and failed Jesus in this respect.

    But, different denominations happened and probably will never go away so I say that we all unite at least behind the fact that Jesus is our Lord. You know, the essentials of Christianity.

    In my opinion, when you compare all of the denominations (including Catholicism). All of the "essentials" are there. These different groups just worship differently.

    The Roman Catholic Church is way more formal and (lack of a better term) ritualized, or as I believe the term is, liturgical, than say...a Southern Baptist Church, which is perhaps a little less formal. Personally, I like the ritual and liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church and that is a big reason why I am Catholic. That among a few other things. Ok, technically, I am not Catholic, I have never been confirmed..but you know what I mean.